How to Do It: The Dark Tower


(How to Do It’s primary objective is to create serious discussion on how to adapt various properties to the silver screen. It is not about my dream cast for a Great Lakes Avengers television show. But seriously, Ellie Kemper IS Squirrel Girl.)

I have been a fan of Stephen King’s sci-fi/fantasy/metafiction opus since I was in middle school, and by “fan,” I mean “fan-fiction writer,” to boot– and I dare you to find it, dammit. I barely went a day without saying some bullcrap online somewhere about Roland of Gilead and his ka-tet.

The Dark Tower series chronicles the tale of Roland Deschain, a “gunslinger,” which is not unlike one of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, is on a decades-spanning quest to find the Dark Tower, a mysterious place that sits at the center of all possible universes. Along the way, he picks up several travelling companions, including fast-talking ex-junkie Eddie, the multiple personality disorder poster child Susannah, and a slightly-psychic boy named Jake. The quartet travels far and wide, all in the name of a singular goal: to reach the Tower and save all universes. More below the jump.

Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman are currently preparing to adapt the massive series. Their adaptation will span film, television, and even video games. Clearly, they’re viewing this massive franchise as a potential financial and creative empire the likes of which we’ve never seen. Sure, lots of properties have had multiple films and television shows devoted to them, but to have all of those working towards the same common ending in the same continuity? It’s a heavy, heavy task. So here’s how I see it.

“Go, then. There are other worlds than these.”

I could go on for pages and pages on the things I cannot wait to see in a Dark Tower movie/tv series/video game. I could tell you about Roland and the gang squaring off in a battle of riddles and wits with a mad, A.I. controlled monorail. I could tell you about Roland’s physical breakdown on the Western Sea, beset by huge lobster-like creatures referred to as “lobstrosities,” and their horrible questioning tics and clicks. I could shiver a little when thinking about how awesome young Jake’s desperate fight with the creature inhabiting a door back to Roland’s world could be. I could go on and on about the details and the little things and not get anywhere. What I really want to see in The Dark Tower is Roland’s world done right.

The best descriptor for the world of The Dark Tower comes from a phrase from the book itself: “The world has moved on.” Post-apocalyptic is close, I suppose, but to say that implies that something has ended. To say the world has moved on, though, implies transition. Change. The alteration of the world from one thing into another. The lands of In-World, Mid-World, and End-World are changing, thanks to the stresses on the Dark Tower, and Roland’s ultimate goal is to restore the Tower, perhaps restoring the world as well. There’s some heavy stuff going on in such an idea. Roland, a man wracked with guilt over all the terrible things he’s done in search of the Tower, is essentially questing to get a second chance. Redemption of this magnitude is a common thread throughout The Dark Tower, and it often only comes at a terrible price.

Something a little less thematic and think-y that I love about the world of the books is how old it is. This isn’t a world a hundred years after the rule of law ends; it’s a world thousands of years old. There are signs all over of a terrifying technological civilization not too unlike out own that destroyed itself millennia ago in some terrible disaster. There are signs of the Old People’s technology everywhere. Some of it works, but most of it doesn’t. Almost all of it seems to have a certain air of malignancy to it, like the Old People weren’t technological masterminds but rather men of evil, destroyed by their own corruption. There are recognizable things from our world, like gas stations and certain brands, that make the dead places of the Old People that much more chilling. The world-building and level of detail Stephen King put into the universes his characters inhabit is Tolkien-esque, and I hope it’s given fair justice.

I love it, so take a f***ing machete to it

The fifth, sixth, and seventh books of The Dark Tower are probably the weakest three books. This is most commonly attributed to the fact that Stephen King, after the writing of book four, Wizard and Glass, lost the outline for the rest of the series, which literally fell off the back of his motorcycle. As such, there’s a certain sense of meandering that pervades much of the last three books. The sixth book, in particular, is terrible with this. It’s essentially 700 pages of tangent. The biggest moment in book six, in terms of the series as a whole, is also such a revoltingly stupid moment that it gets its own subject header below. What I’m saying is the books have organizational problems and a lot of fat to trim.

The books need desperately to be condensed. The first two books could easily be edited down into one film, as there are a lot of moments in the first book in particular that go nowhere. We get a lot of hints of Roland’s original home, the kingdom of Gilead in a world that has moved on. Plot threads open wide and are left dangling. A large portion of the book’s opening takes place in a town seemingly designed only so Roland can kill every living thing in it. The second book is largely concerned with the trials and tribulations presented in Roland “drawing” his companions from their worlds and timelines to his own. There is almost no fat there, and it’s probably the best book in the series as a result, and it allows for the meat of book one to attach to the stronger structure of book two. Books three, four, five and seven are solid, if carrying some dead weight here and there that won’t be missed. The sixth book is absolute shit and should be cut in whatever way necessary to maintain bridging the gap between books five and seven.

However, it doesn’t look like cutting things down is going to be something Ron Howard’s concerned with. The seven book series is being converted into three films and two seasons of television. Assuming a one hour show, with an HBO-style twelve episode run, we’re talking thirty hours of Dark Tower. That’s enough time to show, in detail, all the moments when a lonely Roland yanks one out in the desert. Which, if Javier Bardem is indeed playing Roland, I’ll pay sixty bucks to see. Especially in 3D.


The biggest surprise in Susannah’s Song, book six, is the sudden appearance of Stephen King himself. As a character. In his own novel. Do I need to add further reason why I think the sixth book is the worst? One of the coolest parts of the Dark Tower saga is the constant meta-textual references to King’s own work. It really works the multiversal angle prevalent throughout the series. In a world where all things are possible, why wouldn’t there be a universe where the events of Salem’s Lot were true fact? I’m just a sucker for a consistent universe, I guess. It’s why I creamed my jeans when Nick Fury showed up talking Avengers at the end of Iron Man.

However, the moment that Roland and Eddie travel back to 1970s Maine to meet Stephen King, as he’s the architect of their story and integral to the multiverse’s survival, I think I threw the sizable book down and gave my best Big Willy Style, “Ah HELL naw!” Not only do they literally have to meet with the author of the book, a pivotal moment in book seven revolves around Roland and Jake travelling to the moment King was hit by a car to prevent him, and their story, from dying. King literally has his own fictional characters save him from his own near-death experience. Even as a fanatic fourteen year old, I realized that that was utter goddamn bulls**t. Since the story is no longer just a novel with the upcoming adaptation, if they try to do this again, how does it work? Do they still use King, either with an actor stand-in or a creepy, Tron: Legacy-style digital doppleganger? Does Ron Howard show up? No. Just drop it.

On a slightly related note, the dialogue in the books is almost universally bad. Stephen King is an entertaining writer, and I love his work, but, by his own admission, he’s got a tin ear for dialogue. Keep the handful of “iconic” lines, scrap the rest. Even Akiva “Da Vinci Code adapter” Goldsman can do better.

Big action, multiversal scope

There are some absolutely fantastic action set pieces throughout The Dark Tower. Within the first hundred pages of the first novel, Roland shoots down every man, woman, and child in a small border town. There are massive sieges against otherworldly creatures, including robot wolves that carry lightsabers and throw grenades modeled after the Snitch from Harry Potter. There is a truly brutal shootout where Roland and Eddie, buck naked, take on a group of hardened mobsters during which someone tosses a severed head. PG this ain’t. Ron Howard has yet to prove much in the way of big action directing or the sheer Cronenbergian chutzpah required for some of the big-time action in these books, but then again, who’d have thought that the director/star of Bad Taste and The Frighteners would be the perfect guy to direct Lord of the Rings?

On a similar note, Howard and co. need to remember one  very important detail about this series. This is not your average Hero’s Quest tale. Not only do these books span across timelines, they span across universes. The closest thing to a tale of multiversal travel and intrigue I can think of is The One with Jet Li. This is scope so large that the mind struggled to grasp it. At the beginning, the story is deceptively simple. It begins with one of my favorite opening lines of all time: “The man in black fled into the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” BAM. Everything you need to know is right there. What I’m getting at is that is starts small and then you get a little more and a little more until, towards the end of the first book, the story turns from a lone warrior in pursuit of a mysterious magician into saving the lynchpin of every possible universe ever.

The Tower

If you haven’t read the books and plan to, you can stop now. I’m about to spoil the living hell out of one of the biggest moments: the ending.

The ending of The Dark Tower has been hotly contested and debated since the book arrived back in 2004. It is imperfect and a little fantastic. However, a large part of it will not fly. I’m not talking about the final ending, the one that garners the most attention. Roland’s penance, being forced to relive and relive the entire decades-spanning adventure again and again until he becomes a better man, is probably the most terrifying and fitting punishment possible for a man with as many sins as he has. That’s fine. I’m not talking about how Roland’s dead/abandoned ka-tet manages to find each other again in another, different world. That’s sweet, and they deserve ultimate happiness for such a difficult path/horrible deaths.

I’m talking about the Crimson King.

The Crimson King is the Sauron of the tale. He’s the great king of all evil and the man trying to tear down the Dark Tower so he can rule over the nothingness that would follow. We get glances of him throughout the latter half of the series. He’s spider-like and utterly insane. He poisoned his entire court just to watch them puke blood and die horribly. On top of all of that, he doesn’t have the out that Sauron had of being incorporeal. He is very much alive, in the flesh, and very evil.

When he finally meets Roland face-to-face, he’s somehow made his way onto a balcony of the Dark Tower and spends his mercifully-brief appearance hurling grenades at Roland while shouting, “EEEEEEEEE! EEEEEEEEE!” He is described as a deranged, thin Santa Claus. On top of that, he is finally defeated by being  erased out of existence with pencil and paper by a mute with superpowers to create and destroy with his sketches.

Shia LaBeouf in "No No No NOo" video

This should have been an epic battle. It took place at the center of every single universe, for God’s sake. The stage was set for one of the greatest good vs. evil showdowns of our time.  Reality itself could have been an obstacle and a playground for these, the ultimate avatars of pure good and darkest evil. And we got Crazy Santa and a box of grenades.

Ron Howard, the ball’s in your court now. You have a massive undertaking before you. Even Lord of the Rings wasn’t the challenge that The Dark Tower now presents before you. This could be one of the great genre film series, if it’s done with finesse.

Don’t f**k it up, or I’m going to start sending you my fan-fiction.